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June 3, 2009

When White-Collar Hubbies Go to Jail

What's it like when your high-rolling husband is imprisoned for fraud? Gretchen Voss learns the surprising details from three women who lived the headlines.

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white collar wives of criminals

BERNADETTE NOE, 49

Photo Credit: Lauren Greenfield

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BERNADETTE NOE, 49
She fled to her winter retreat, a $5 million oceanfront mansion in Key Largo

IN THE SPRING OF 2005, Bernadette and Tom Noe convened an emergency family meeting at their daughter's Toledo, OH, home to break some grim news to their kids: The Feds were investigating Tom, a rare coin and collectibles dealer, for campaign-finance improprieties. As Tom explained the allegations, Bernadette's cell phone rang. "We're at your house with a search warrant," barked the FBI agent on the other end. "Be here in five minutes, or we'll bust the door down." Bernadette huddled with Tom and decided she'd go alone — he needed to have his lawyer present. She threw back a Xanax on the way over, which, she says, muted the humiliation that came when the band of grim-faced agents frisked her — herself a lawyer and daughter of a judge — then ransacked the house. Later, they hauled away boxes of personal items, including pricey collectibles her husband had given their kids: a set of Harry Potter figurines autographed by J.K. Rowling, a strand of Marilyn Monroe's hair. Bernadette's mind reeled as they rifled through her underwear drawer. I've never even had a parking ticket. Why are they looking at me like that?

It had been a spectacular downfall for the Noes, once fixtures in Ohio's society pages, thanks to their fundraising efforts on behalf of George W. Bush's second presidential bid. They were such big shots that Bernadette even scored a nickname from the president — "Bernie" — and danced at both of his inaugural balls. But in 2005, their privileged lives imploded after authorities accused Tom of laundering $45,000 to the Bush campaign. Not long after, he was implicated in the theft of $13 million from an Ohio investment fund. The media went to town, vilifying her husband. "It was horrible," Bernadette recalls, smoothing her pencil skirt. "I could have crawled into a hole or jumped off my balcony."

Overwhelmed by the media attention and seething at her husband's recklessness, Bernadette fled to the couple's winter retreat in Key Largo, a $5 million oceanfront mansion, its pool outfitted with a grotto and waterfall. She contemplated the havoc her husband had inflicted upon her. "Life was really good for me, careerwise," she says, ticking off her professional accomplishments: a law degree, a newspaper column, a local TV show, a radio program in development. "After the FBI raid, I just pulled the plug on everything."

For the next 30 days, she did nothing but cry and pray. Then she had what she describes as a divine revelation. If Jesus could forgive our sins, then surely she could extend that same compassion to her husband, languishing in legal limbo back in Ohio as the investigation continued. She summoned her husband — who had yet to be convicted of any crime — to Florida, where the couple kept a low profile for over a year. In May of 2006, Tom pleaded guilty to money laundering in connection with the Bush campaign donations. Six months later, he returned to Ohio to face trial for separate theft charges. All told, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Today he spends his days at a minimum-security facility in Ohio, where he earns $20 a day as a laundry attendant. "I have prosecuted parents who abuse their children," Bernadette fumes, referring to her stint as an attorney for Florida's Family Services Department. "I'm looking at this and going, 'What the hell is wrong? My husband's sitting in jail.'"

Still, Bernadette is hardly the picture of the put-upon wife. She now lives full-time with her youngest child, a high-schooler, in Florida — given the state's home-owner-friendly property laws, creditors can't seize their 5000-square-foot manse, despite the $2 million the couple still owe in legal fees. Strange though it may seem, the arrangement clearly agrees with Bernadette. She's grown out her trademark spiky 'do and sports a deep tan. "The great thing about living here is that everybody's got a history, a story, and nobody cares," she says, cheerfully. "I've opened another chapter, which hasn't been bad."

Well, that is until just recently, when Tom confessed to Bernadette that he'd strayed early in their marriage. Furious, she contemplated divorce. He coaxed her into working through it with the aid of a Christian self-help book — doing the written exercises it prescribes through the mail with her — but, she admits, rehabbing a wounded marriage is nearly impossible when one partner is behind bars. Bernadette says she and Tom have reached a détente for the time being. "I think I'm going to be the patron saint of prison widows," she laughs, clearly amused by the idea. "Prisoners have their own patron saint, but I don't think the wives have one. I think they should."

NEXT PAGE: KAREN WEINREB, 41 - She was ruthlessly excised from her social scene


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